At a Wednesday news conference, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said that a man suspected of making a school shooting threat had been arrested and School District 2 superintendent Terry Bouck announced that schools will be on partial lockdown through Friday over safety concerns.
St. John said that the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office arrested Rodney Dale Wilm, 51, at about 10 a.m. Wednesday in Lockwood after an early-morning phone call to the City-County Emergency Dispatch Center.
Shortly after 2 a.m., the center received a call from a man who said "school shooting tomorrow" and hung up. Authorities tracked the call to a Lockwood home on Omaha Street using latitude and longitude of a cellphone used to make the call.
Wilm faces a felony charge of intimidation and was booked into the Yellowstone County jail. St. John said that the arresting deputies found enough evidence to take Wilm into custody.
He said that even though there's "no indication of any type threat to our school facilities" and no evidence Wilm intended to carry out the threat, law enforcement takes it seriously.
"It's irresponsible, creates unnecessary fear and takes away resources," St. John said.
At the news conference, Bouck said the lockdown requires all schools in the district keep exterior doors locked, with a staff member at a main entrance to greet students and visitors. The order encourages teachers to lock their classroom doors when students are inside.
Bouck said the order is due to a culmination of safety concerns, including the 911 call, Tuesday's announcement that two Billings high school students had been removed from school over alleged threats and Friday's mass killing at a Connecticut elementary school.
"When I say safety is our No. 1 priority, I mean it," Bouck said.
He added that SD2 will ask that anybody who makes threats toward a school be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
On Tuesday night, SD2 officials said that open-concept schools, which don't have locks on many of the doors, will have extra staff members present to in addition to the added police presence around local schools.
At Wednesday's news conference, Bouck described as false a report from a local media outlet, which he declined to name, that a school shooting happened in Billings.
"Today some media outlets erroneously reported a shooting at one of our high schools," he wrote in an email to staff and parents in the district. "This report is false and the error is unfortunate."
Following up on a promise made Tuesday night, the police department ramped up its presence at local schools Wednesday and will continue to do so through the rest of the week.
St. John and Bouck said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference that staff members and students would see officers more often throughout the day on regular patrols. The action came in light of the school shootings in Connecticut, rumors of planned attacks at a Billings school that led to the removal from school of two students, and a general effort to be more cautious.
Wednesday morning's arrest reinforced those efforts.
Officers fanned out across Billings and began visiting schools within their assigned beats and spending more time patrolling the areas around the schools.
"We’ve got our on-duty people that are re-tasked to spend more time in and around the schools," St. John said. "With the beat cars, we are asking officers to stop in at the schools and touch base and be seen through the day."
Bouck said he is confident in the security and safety levels at SD2 schools and plans to visit schools throughout the week. Regardless, the extra police presence was a welcome sight.
"The police presence is huge," Bouck said. "It is a really good feeling. ... We're teaming together and working together so there's a comfortable level so learning can take place."
The effort also includes bringing in some off-duty officers, assigning extra hours to others and reassigning some officers, such as the department's public-relations officer, to help out with the school duties.
The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office and Montana State University Billings police are also assisting.
St. John said that with the officers focusing more on the schools, the department will operate as if its slick-streets policy were in effect. The policy says officers will respond only to emergency calls and in-progress crimes and incidents.
The greatest police presence will be seen at middle schools and high schools, but police will also be at elementary schools, as well as the Billings Catholic School System.
"We've met with all of the principals," St. John said. "Everybody in the schools had different assessments on what they’d like for presence, and we're working with that. We’re on it."
While Thursday's safety changes will last through the week, Bouck said SD2 could see many permanent changes in the coming months. All staff members will have identification badges soon. The school's safety committee will meet at the beginning of 2013 to discuss more policy changes and, thanks to a suggestion from a community member, Bouck hopes to hold a community safety forum in January.
"We're going to come back (in 2013), and it won't be business as usual," he said.